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    Co-op Retailer Puts Disposable Batteries on Recycling List
    Marco Procaccini

    Disposable dry cell batteries may have been left off the list of most recycling programs, but that hasn’t stopped one lower mainland cooperative enterprise from taking the lead on making it happen.

    People may be surprised to learn that the Mountain Equipment Co-op in Vancouver has been providing a free-of-charge recycling service for headlamp and other household dry cell batteries for over two years.

    “Co-op members can return their used batteries at no charge,” says Denise Taschereau, social and environmental responsibility manager for the MEC. “The co-op pays $130 for about 30 kg. in batteries to companies to recycle whatever materials that can be recycled and ensure that the other materials are disposed of in a responsible manner, so they don’t end up in land fills.”

    The co-op, which has eight retail outlets in major cities across Canada, ships the returned batteries to two recycling firms that service both eastern and western regions of the country.

    Nu-Life Industries, which services the MEC program in Western Canada, specializes in breaking down and re-using a wide variety of components and chemicals that make up disposable batteries, including the commonly used alkali, zinc, mercury, lithium and lead.

    “A patented process is used which involves the breakdown of cell composition to segregate alkali, plastic, paper and metal components,” according to the Nu Life web site. “Plastic is washed and re-used for the manufacture of new products. Metal components are washed and dried. Metal parts are then blended with fragmented carbon steel and hydraulically briquetted, to be re-melted in a furnace and made into new products. Alkali removed is consumed for wash water neutralization.”

    Taschereau says the program was started after many co-op members realized the large amount of batteries, especially those used for headlamps, that were being sold, which meant they were ending up in local landfills. Despite the diversity of BC’s recycling programs, enacted in the 1990s by the previous NDP administration, these types of power cells were not included.

    “We found that these 4.5-volt headlamp batteries make up over 50 per cent of MEC's battery sales,” she said.  “This means about 5.8 metric tons of spent batteries ending up in landfills.”

    The MEC’s research claims that disposable batteries, which commonly include brand name flashlight and portable power cells, account for up 70 per cent of heavy metals found in landfills.

    While rechargeable batteries, which also have a limited use life, are recyclable at most retail outlets in the lower mainland, as the cost is included as part of the purchase price, the MEC is the only commercial venture which has a program for disposable batteries, and it is only available to its members.

    Meanwhile, since November, the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, a Vancouver based urban ecology group, has been offering to take used disposable batteries from the general public free of charge. SPEC organizer Ivan Bulic said Nu Life Industries agreed not to charge the group for recycling batteries.

    “We’re a small non-profit group, so they gave us a deal,” he said. “We can’t handle the volume that the MEC can. They were the first to start recycling disposable batteries, and that was really great thing to do. What we need is a government program that ensures a handling fee is placed on these batteries, so all retailers and distributors can recycle them.”

    Taschereau has lobbied for the creation of a similar program for the general public, but both she and Bulic says the only way this will happen is if battery manufacturing firms take up the responsibility, and the cost, of ensuring the all batteries are recyclable.

    “Right now we are in fact taking the responsibility for the manufacturers’ products,” she said. “The service is a way of using our collective voice to talk to vendors. But it is up to the manufacturers to take responsibility for their products.”

    She adds the service is part of a much broader set of practices that encompass the organization’s founding principles of economic democracy, social consciousness and “conscious consumerism.”

    While the co-op operates on a for-profit basis, it does not follow the general corporate mantras of profit maximization or the rapid accumulation of wealth by any select entity. In fact, the MEC has a fundamental policy of what Taschereau calls “try before you buy,” and encourages people to carefully think over whether they really need something before they decide to purchase it.

    “We function in a capitalist society and we have to ensure we remain viable like any other business,” she said. “But we are cooperative business that shares its revenues and is based on providing useful services to its members.”

    The SPEC battery-recycling depot is located at 2150 Maple St., two blocks west of Burrard, in Vancouver and is open from 10 am to 4 pm on weekdays. The Mountain Equipment Co-op is at 130 West Broadway in Vancouver and can be reached at 604-709-6241.


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